What do a winged horse, a naked god, and a fiery, blue monster have in common? No idea? That’s a shame, because the archaeologists staring at these murals on the walls of a recently excavated Chinese tomb have no clue either. Answers on a postcard, dear readers.
The walls of this tomb – which dates back 1,400 years – don't appear to have any artistic similarities with other tombs from this period of time. It’s particularly unclear why the wind deity is shown in nothing more than his birthday suit while charging towards a burial chamber guarded by an unidentified azure beast.
Apart from these confusing and surreal scenes, there were also recognizable paintings of villagers riding or trading horses, hunting, socializing or working around a gate entrance to some sort of town or city. Military practices familiar to historians and themes of heavenly ascension were also spotted.
If there were any clues hiding in the tomb, the team from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology didn’t find any. They note that, before the tomb was officially discovered in 2013, it had been heavily robbed, as many around the country have been. Artifacts from ancient times are incredibly valuable on the black market, so the risk of getting caught by the authorities and severely reprimanded is, to many, worth it.
This mausoleum was clearly built for someone important - and it's not the only one that was discovered recently. According to a second study in the journal Chinese Archaeology, another tomb, this time in Hunan province, has been found to contain the remains of a husband and wife. An inscription, “Yi”, was also found, which is likely the surname of the couple.
The male was found in a larger coffin, and clothing appropriate to a female living back then was picked out of the smaller coffin – but no skeletal remains were found alongside them. The unnecessarily large coffin for the husband fits in with historical attitudes towards the supposedly superior nature of the patriarchy.
Whoever they were, they died during a massive political transition from the Ming (“Bright”) Dynasty to the Qing (“Pure”) Dynasty, the final unbroken line of monarchs in Chinese history. Back then, a tribal leader published a document known as the Seven Grievances, which described how people were being oppressed by the Ming leadership.
Things reached a head when the rebels and monarchy engaged in a series of massive battles, and the defeated Ming emperor hanged himself on the tree of the imperial garden just outside the Forbidden City. A king ascended to the head of a short-lived Shun dynasty, who was, after just a few months, defeated by the man who would ultimately become the first Qing emperor.
Update: Initially, two similar archaeologial discoveries were written as if they were one in the same. We've since corrected this error.